50 Years Ago This Week – Harper

The Paul Newman vehicle Harper opened on February 23, 1966.  Despite the considerable talent attached – including cinematographer Conrad Hall (whose 70s credits include Fat City and Smile), screenwriter William Goldman (All the Presidents Men, Marathon Man), and a marvelous cast that also features Lauren Bacall, Shelly Winters, Robert Wagner and Janet Leigh (wasted in a thankless role that brings out Newman’s mugging) – it is by no means a must-see.  Goldman’s adaptation of a Ross McDonald novel (the source material probably accounts for the excessive violence and too-high body count), comes across like one of those late sixties cop films starring Frank Sinatra (like Tony Rome and The Detective, which it should be said, were not all that bad), or, less kindly, as a middling episode of The Rockford Files with an A-list cast and a big screen budget.  (The go-to New Hollywood version of a Ross McDonald novel is The Drowning Pool (1975), again with Newman heading up a fine cast and boasting an impressive production team including director Stuart Rosenberg and cinematographer Gordon Willis, with Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Walter Hill contributing to the screenplay.)  

Harper is ultimately a poor-man’s The Big Sleep, a comparison more than encouraged by the early introduction of a paralyzed matriarch, hothouse lights, too-provocative daughter, and, of  course, the presence of Bacall.  But even though it is adequately diverting and watchable, Harper suffers by reminding viewers of how far short it falls of the standard set by the Howard Hawks/Raymond Chandler classic.  The movie remains of interest here, however, as one of those films released in 1966 that were pushing hard against the corroding gates of the Production Code Authority (the industry’s self-censorship system) that would completely give way by the end of the year; as such it pointed towards the themes (and possibilities) of the seventies film.

As a “cusp of the New Hollywood” effort, among other attributes Harper features uncommonly sadistic violence.  This is more to be observed than to be cheered (but it is notable that the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther – the liberal guardian of good taste who would soon rail against what he saw as the irresponsible exploitation of gratuitous violence in films like Bonnie and Clyde – gave Harper a free pass on this score in his friendly if mixed review).  The movie, which gestures towards the revisionist detective films of the following decade, earns more impressive proto-seventies chops with its willingness to dwell on struggling and compromised characters, explicit disrespect for the obviously ineffectual police, and a determined commitment to reject the possibility of any hint of “learning” or redemption.  This is a deeply cynical film.  As if an inside joke, pretty much everyone who shows up on screen is guilty—of something.  Ultimately those suspects (or non-suspects) who are not responsible for the kidnapping Harper is called in to investigate nevertheless turn out to be participants in some other criminal enterprise; even the household staff looms suspiciously.  And even though the mystery is ultimately “solved” by our hero, the victim is not saved and never much cared for—neither mourned nor missed, his “loved ones” are happy to see him go.

Finally, and subversively, and here quite plainly pointing towards the New Hollywood, Harper ends with a violation of the principal (and sacrosanct) commandment of the Production Code: the guilty must be brought to justice.  But in this film, at the moment of truth, Harper literally drops the bag, shrugs his shoulders, and walks away.  What does it matter, anyway?  


Harper 1

Setting the Scene: Shades of The Big Sleep


Harper 2

Bacall Keeps an Eye on her Evesdropping Servants 


Harper 3

Newman's Lew Harper Walks Away